By Chiemeziem Everest Udochukwu
Before other graduands and I danced to Styl-Plus’ Four Years and friends and acquaintances used permanent markers to write profanities and wishes on our white T-shirts, I had lived my university life with little drama, coveting the VIP aura of corps members, their crested vests and khaki trousers and jungle boots, the fawning manner people called Corper! and Ajuwaya!, hailing and bowing, as if in homage to gods.
I registered for NYSC and got posted to a state that wasn’t in my slot. I was given a strict date of arrival and left for the bus station with a travel bag of clothes and a floral Ghana-must-go bag of provisions. As at other bus terminals on busy streets, nameless pick-and-drop cars parked by the road to ferry passengers unwilling to wait for company buses. One smoky-eyed, chap-lipped agbero announced that his bus was one passenger away from departure. Unsavoury travel stories trail such vehicles, but afternoon lurked on the horizon. Everyone loves to reach an unfamiliar destination in good time. I asked him the exact place they’d stop. The driver, a chubby man with a face cap the shape of a bicycle seat, convinced me, in persuasive Igbo, that they were not like other buses. I climbed in.
Inside was a hotchpotch of perfume and the smell of goods from the packed boot, the space left at the rear an interstice between two colossuses wearing face masks. A burlap sack from the boot pressed against the seat, pushing it forward. I readjusted myself several times in a minute. The agbero slammed the car door with all his might. The bang startled and stilled me.
We arrived before sunset. Everyone was busy at the market. Traffic wardens gesticulated frantically at a mayhem of vehicles blaring their way into space. Hawkers roamed. Mobile sellers trundled in the heat. From there, I entered a succession of tricycles.
The last driver promised to take me to camp himself. His relaxed, sincere tone soothed my travel knocks like cold compress on a bruise. But he abandoned the major route for another that expanded into a nexus of other routes. The merry-go-round lasted over 15 minutes before he emerged on a wide, unpaved road, surrounded by cultivation and a scattering of finished and unfinished houses. I paid him a dire amount, then realised that I had been conned. If I had walked a little further from where the penultimate keke driver dropped me, I would have reached camp in four minutes. I cursed and trudged across.
Prospective corps members in face masks poured in. Each bared the content of their bags under the keen eyes of three officials and two soldiers in an open hut. Those without face masks obligatorily bought from a girl-vendor standing by in a white polo and shorts.
The camp defied the reports of ex-corps members whose exaggerated narratives had littered my mind. It had steady water supply, clean comfy bunks, and elegant structures. Everything was new to me. The imperative commands of the bugle; the warning whistles of soldiers; the grumbles of prospective corps members who wanted more sleep; the mounds of shit in the toilet and the people who decried the injustice in hyperbolic ways; people collapsing and the wily ones contriving to collapse too to be exempted from duty; shorts stretching and tearing and embarrassing their owners; people queuing for so-so food like invited beggars, some befriending the kitchen workers for extra food rations, some giving out meal tickets and splashing cash at Mammy Market; people securing seats at night parties and giving them up at skill acquisition classes; people rocking away their horniness on the party stage, the fearless ones sneaking into dark corners at night, their brief romance alert to the footsteps of soldiers; officials praying for corps members to find life partners in camp; dignitaries giving long-winded lectures that sedated everyone; the battle for water that culminated in the lazy ones stealing from hoarded buckets; the animated air of obscenities and caricature among inmates; the noisy parade band beats; the demanding drills; the choky haze of dust; the tall soldier who became the first person to point a gun at me.
Our platoon had its second qualifying football match the day before. I was nursing an injury, but having notched two assists in the first match, teammates insisted I play. I tore my hamstring in the game and couldn’t stand or walk. The attendants gave me analgesics and a note that gave me permission to stay in the hostel.
But soldiers on duty stormed in to chase people out to the parade ground. A tall one marched in, scanned the hall, and strode to my bunk. There was a chalkiness and tightness to the black of his skin.
He ordered me to leave to ensure the safety of people’s items. I told him I was ill, and that he should hold me accountable for any item that went missing before people returned from the parade. I offered to give him my ID for easy identification.
“Wey your permission?”
“Let me get it, sir,” I said.
He barked, his charge predatory and angry. I clenched one of the iron bars of the bunk to sit up. Every attempt to attend to his demand quickly resulted in pain. He smacked my temple hard with the back of his hand. “I said fast fast!” A ringing sound swam through my ear. I held my pinna. He lashed my forearm with his koboko. It stung.
“Oga, haba na? Wetin?” I grumbled.
He pointed his rifle at my face. The muzzle oozed a sickening acrid smell. For a moment, it felt like he would shoot. I knew my rights, but he had the privilege of a gun. I chose silence and found the note.
He barked again, glanced at the note, and left.
Excitement and disappointment peaked on the day we were posted to our Places of Primary Assignment (PPAs). People posted to rural areas cursed their luck and vowed to try and change their PPAs. Those who, like me, were posted to urban areas, especially the capital city, could not wait to get accepted by our respective institutions. Contrary to the rumours that first class students would be posted to tertiary institutions, a girls’ secondary school appeared on my posting letter. Two of my mates were disappointed at getting posted to a boys’ school. They congratulated me on my potential “enjoyment” of girls. I made sure they didn’t get my number.
Vehicles headed to different local governments assembled and were filled up in no time. I couldn’t catch the bus to my local government, but there was a blue bus bearing a banner of a famous church and a cardboard sheet indicating their destination. They accepted people within their location. The man in the driver’s seat introduced himself as a pastor and told me they were a church-sponsored missionary movement. Two ladies helped carry and position our bags in the bus. They tried too hard to be friendly and funny.
The storey buildings in the area—churches and banks and schools and plazas and hotels and residential homes—confronted one another. Fences and streets were mediators. Masquerades and their entourage besieged the road. Some obstructed traffic. The masquerade masks were sculptured and painted to the shape and hue of different animals, the costume a fine blend of resplendent appliqués, headdresses, and psychedelic designs.
On our way, the pastor showed each of us our PPAs. Some of us wanted to alight to have a look, but he convinced us to visit another day as it was getting late. He offered us a dwelling place, a three-room apartment his church had secured to accommodate corps members who would attend their church. They called it a family house. He dropped us off at the building and urged the two ladies to take care of us. There was a room apiece for boys and girls. Two of the three beds in the boys’ room were flat with a scaly, scratchy feel. The other room was bigger, the beds prettier.
The pastor returned the next day and called us together. He knew most places in the city, having spent over a decade there. He updated us about the accommodation status of our various PPAs. He gave us two options: stay put in the family house throughout our service, or stay and pay for a limited time, then find another dwelling place. His preference for staying put was subtle; he made it seem like leaving implied unwillingness to serve God. One of the ladies handed us a register to put down our decisions immediately. I thought the move manipulative and asked for few more days to decide. The idea of paying to live with strangers, to share the same bed, meals and blames, was unappealing. I had lived alone during my university days.
After a long, ponderous wait at my PPA with other corps members, the Vice Principal of Academics assessed us. She commended my degree and accepted me quickly. I asked about accommodation and she smiled with one corner of her mouth. I knew she was about to break bad news in a way that wouldn’t hurt.
“There is an agreement among the school management not to accommodate males,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. “Can’t something be done about it, ma?”
I was struggling to be calm.
“I think there is space in the lodge but we’ve had one or two bad cases. It’s out of my hands. It may favour you if you push for it.”
She referred me to either the school manager or principal. Neither was present at the time.
I found the Corpers’ Lodge myself. Each of the three unoccupied rooms could accommodate two people. I didn’t mind three.
I paid for a month at the family house, but I was desperate to leave. The monthly rent was high and the rationed meals, served morning and evening, teased the stomach like appetisers. It was mandatory to attend all church and weekly activities, and one had to be back in the house before 6pm and must wake early for lengthy morning devotions.
The boys’ room was directly above a broken soakaway pipe and an open dumpsite, both separated by a fence. You opened the windows only for a sniff of stink and a panoramic view of gunk. Most nights, I didn’t know if I’d lament the buzz and bite of mosquitoes or the rattling thunders and foul susurrations of farts.
We lived on the top floor where the heat of the sun grilled us so intensely that the slow-spinning ceiling fan became its aide. The Head of House, a Yoruba girl, banned the boys from wearing singlets or shorts lest someone strayed from the path of righteousness. But the ladies often ambled around in miniskirts and spaghetti singlets. Once, one of the girls barged into the boys’ room, where I was in boxer briefs. I pulled the bed cloth over my groin area. “Medicine after death,” she said, laughing.
I told her I would be punished or evicted if it was the other way round. “You can’t compare,” she said. “Wetin guys dey hide?” We had a brief debate and everyone present agreed that the real abomination was a guy barging into a room with an unclothed girl. My “lack of confidence before a lady” became the topic. I didn’t know how to feel.
I tried to join a closer and (by all accounts) better family house, but they had reached the maximum number of occupants. I stayed put. But other occupants were beginning to leave.
Not long after, the Head of House split every activity—the sweeping, the cleaning, the morning devotions, the cooking—down the middle between me and the two ladies left. Soon, I realised that food tends to be tastier when cooked for a small group of people. Even with minimal condiments, there was something refreshing and unfamiliarly delicious about the meals. I had to request recipes from the girls. But the Head of House didn’t allow persons of different sexes to join each other in the kitchen.
One of the girls was displeased. She and the Head of the House did not get along because she questioned rules and dissected them to decide which she would accept. She insisted on joining me in the kitchen and the Head of House warned her that it would encourage me to be lazy, to feel privileged, and depend on the girls to cook for me. She could never know that in my mother’s kitchen, there was neither gender nor gender roles.
After the last two boys left, the water pump broke. To carry buckets of water through the distance of another building and up the stairs was so hard some of us occasionally slept without bathing at night.
One of the ladies proposed that she and I swap duties: I fetch her water, she cooks my food. The Head of House snatched it from her mouth. But, one day, we all came back from work knackered and met a dry house. The Head of House asked that I carry a jerry can instead of a bucket so I could spare some water for her to cook. It was a simple task that I could have done for her, for all of us. But we were muddled up in a cold duel. I didn’t want to encourage her to be lazy, to feel privileged, to depend on me to fetch her water.
“But you are a guy,” she protested. “You should be helping us out in things like this.”
She fetched the water by herself and resented me for a few days.
The afternoon I thought I would finally be able to discuss my accommodation with the school manager, he came hours late and sent me out of his office as soon as I greeted him.
“Please go,” he said as soon as I walked in. “I can’t do anything for you.”
I told him that it was unfair. I had been unable to travel back home to prepare adequately because he had postponed all our scheduled meetings. He couldn’t look at my face. Still, I needed someone to explain why they accepted male corps members only to frustrate them. I decided to see the principal.
As I walked to her office, students cheered and waved at me through their class windows. The principal’s office neighboured a grove of mango trees, which hosted two monkeys brachiating with an air of assurance.
The principal sat behind a fleet of awards. She looked up as I walked in. The fringe of her brown wig gave way to strands of grey hair and a frown.
“You people and disturbance!” she said. “We want the safety of our students. We don’t want you to come here and pregnant them for us.”
She pronounced English words like Igbo transliterations. Her remark reminded me of the actions of one of the teachers. I had called a junior student to direct me to the school canteen when the teacher approached us. “What are you asking this little girl?” she asked. “All these corpers. You people can never change.”
She dismissed the student.
My mouth was dry. Had I become a roaming syringe deployed by the federal government to inject pregnancies?
“Ma, your students are safe with me,” I said to the principal.
“That’s what all of you say, as if you are impotent.”
“Ma, I really need to leave where I am. You can place me on probation.”
She looked at me and I could tell that she didn’t trust me.
“Mr Man, go to any family house and stay. You are a man, so you can cope. Family house will even help you save. You people will not allow somebody drink water and keep cup.”
“Ma, I pay transport each day to come here.”
“So how is that my business? Aren’t you people paid, eh? Go and rent a house if you don’t want to suffer.”
“I’d like to be rejected, ma,” I said.
“We don’t reject people after acceptance. As you can see, we need corps members.”
I sighed. A housing agent had told me the least price of rooms available close to the school and it would have required three of my monthly stipends. The cheaper options were in far-flung places.
The principal opened a diary and riffled through it. The message was clear: “You can leave now.”
I wanted to shout crazy things at her. That not all penises hunt vaginas. That female corps members could molest her students. But I chose silence and headed for the school’s gate. Three children coated in harmattan dust were playing three-a-side. They stopped to let me pass. One greeted me and called me corper, all smiles. I gave him a perfunctory thumb up and waved a keke down.
I met a lady in mufti kneeling before the local government inspector. She was in the final moments of a profuse appreciation. When she left, the LGI offered me a seat and told me to be quick. I gave her a thousand and one reasons to change my PPA. She listened quietly, her hazel eyes blank.
“Are you done?” she asked.
‘Yes, ma,” I said.
“I understand everything,” she said finally. “Life itself is not easy. But I won’t change your PPA because they have already accepted you. It’s less than a year, so you should endure.”
I was stung. Why couldn’t I reject the PPA? Why was the PPA’s acceptance the only response that mattered?
“The girl that left here is pregnant and her PPA is stressing her,” she added. “Yours is a different case. Guys can stay anywhere. I don’t think I can do anything for you now. Unless you have something else to say.”
Guys can stay anywhere: in a dungeon, in a furnace, in a pit full of shit.
“Something else to say” was probably an invitation to negotiate. And I wanted to. I wanted to wash her feet with my tears and wipe them with my hair like Mary Magdalene. But I resisted the urge. I stood up and returned to the family house. E
Chiemeziem Everest Udochukwu (@everdoch) is a graduate in Linguistics/Igbo studies. His work appears in Lolwe, Jellyfish Review, and Peatsmoke Journal. He has been a finalist for The Black Warrior Review Contest, The Quramo Writers Prize, and The Dawn Project Competition.